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Constraints

1

I was attending a film festival party at the Scottish Museum a couple of years ago when near the end of the evening an actor friend said a very strange thing had happened to him. At the time he didn’t say more than that, but when we next met up he said that halfway through the party he had been talking to a New York-based, Iranian born filmmaker around his own age (mid-thirties), and she asked him to strangle her. He was telling me this a couple of days after the party and I, of course, looked dismayed, asking him to say more, momentarily worried that I had a murderer in my midst and a confession on my conscience. He laughed saying he hadn’t strangled her, or at least not to death. He did grab her throat for a moment before kissing her, and she kissed him back with some enthusiasm. Then she pulled away as if madness had overcome her and sanity returned, while all he could see, as she started talking about the festival’s opening night film, was still more madness in the shift. The strangulation happened when she suggested they go outside for a cigarette and on the way she pulled him into a corner under the stairs and made her request. He had just told her that he didn’t smoke but he would be happy to witness her ruin her health if it meant spending a few more minutes in her company, and so she grabbed him and said she would be happier for it to be ruined more quickly than that. After the incident, they continued outside as she had a cigarette and she said that she liked him – but would prefer to film him than screw him. Sublimation and all that she said. He smiled, saying there was no reason why they couldn’t do both: he would happily lie on the casting couch. After she finished her cigarette they went back inside, went over to the cloakroom, and she said she was leaving. She would see him around. He said he would walk her to the door and flag down a taxi with her but she insisted no – she wanted to be alone.

2

As Robbie told me this I asked him a few more details and worked out that earlier in the evening I had seen this woman sitting on the steps of the museum and kissing someone else. I noticed her partly because I found her distinctly attractive, perhaps also because I found her behaviour unusual for a woman who did not look in her late teens or early twenties. Over the years I had seen plenty people get affectionate with each other in various parties at the festival; usually, however, these were volunteers taking advantage of the free alcohol and high on the atmosphere of being in the presence of minor celebrities. Yet this was a woman I would have thought too mature and too self-aware for such actions. Seeing her enter the party an hour earlier I thought she appeared intriguing. When I saw her kissing someone on the stairs that interest became more pronounced, though the desire to talk to her became less so, and when Robbie told me what happened to him the gap between wishing to know more about her, and wishing not to get to know her, became still more pronounced. She was not a tall woman but she moved as if her legs were longer than they were. A lot of small women I know scurry, but she would move with a lithe confidence that probably meant people credited her with being much taller than she was. That night she was attired in a black strapped dress that came up a couple of inches above the knee, and gave her legs a muscularity that a lower dress would have concealed. The heels were not high, as though she wished not to create an artificial prosthetic when she wished to convey that she was taller than she was through confidence. That I had observed her in some detail was why it was not difficult for me to match the person with Robbie’s description. Her name, he said, was Azar.

3

That evening I did not tell Robbie that had I had seen her kissing someone else earlier on, and I did not see him again during the festival: our chat had taken place two days after the opening party, and the next day he was flying to the US for a small role as an Irish-American gangster. He wouldn’t be back till the following weekend: he would try and make it to the closing party.

The filmmaker was around throughout the festival, which I found surprising: the film she was presenting was a short in the experimental section, and I couldn’t see the budget stretching to accommodate the director for more than ten days. I supposed she must have had friends in the city with whom she was staying, or an income stream that allowed her to lodge somewhere at her own expense. I noticed that the opening night wasn’t the only evening where she appeared well-attired. I must have seen her around six times during the period, and on each occasion she was dressed differently, and, I would have assumed, expensively.

I am a screenwriter by profession, and to be honest not an overly experimental one. It isn’t that I believe scripts should be written according to a template, as many commercial screenplays now happen to be, but I do think that careful construction, developed characterization and a solid idea behind the work are all important. I have written four scripts that have been filmed, and I can say that while none of the films have made a fortune, they have all made money, and the films received good reviews. I suppose the best way to describe them is to say they have something of the tightness of classic Hollywood, and the characterization of those seventies American films like The French Connection or Five Easy Pieces. I am not saying they are anywhere near as good – just this is the type of cinema I would hope to emulate. If there is no template, I cannot deny there have been influences.

My interest in seeing Azar’s film then did not rest on aesthetic considerations: I was only interested in what type of film this particular woman would make and yet, when I saw it, I was fascinated, unsure whether there was enough in the work itself to keep my attention, or whether the combination of the person I would see, the anecdote Robbie had told me, and the film I was watching turned it into something I found compulsive. The film was thirty minutes long and made on celluloid. The voice-over told a clear and tense story while the images generated a disjunction that probably led many viewers to find themselves moving between the story being told and the images in front of them. The story was about a teenage girl who had moved from Tehran at eleven and now at fifteen wanted to explore her sexuality while at the same time trying to find a way to protect her virginity. She would kiss a boy and then push him away, flirt with another and then kiss a third. This would often happen at parties and she would always end the night triumphantly alone. She would do this for three years, determined that she would not have sex with someone until she was at college, and then she would sleep with a teacher of her choice and believe that by doing so it would remain a secret between only the two of them. If it were a fellow student he would brag about it and perhaps expect a relationship; a professor would likely want to keep it as quiet as possible. So she went through her school years, kissing the boys and making them cry out in frustration, but always managed to extricate herself without giving her body to any of them.

At university, in her first year there was no teacher she wished to sleep with, and was tempted on several occasions to give her virginity to several charming, sensitive and indeed tentative people at her liberal arts college. She would go further than she had at school, allowing them not only to kiss her and occasionally caress her breasts, but also touch her down below. She would touch them too, popping their penis out of their trousers and working them to a quick orgasm. These encounters gave her some pleasure but little meaning, and there she was at nineteen still having had no one enter her body. The first person whom she allowed to penetrate her penetrated more than her physical being and while he was happy to keep the relationship private, she despaired that he had a wife. She saw him for most of her second year: he was a visiting lecturer whose wife was back in France, and to whom he would return after that year. He was all she hoped for from a lover, and though his body was not firm and his skin in places saggy, his mind was taut and she felt she was constantly learning. When he left the States and left her, she thought that everything she had kept intact along with her virginity had broken apart, and she had never before felt so obviously half-American and half-Iranian. It was if her broken heart had broken her self, and she couldn’t reunite the two bits of her personality in the absence of the person who for a year had made her whole.

The voice over was rich in feeling and the prose purple in the phrasemaking. The images were melodramatic counterpoints, with footage of the virginity of nature during the earlier stages, and near the conclusion relying on archival footage of collapse in various manifestations: bridges, buildings, and icebergs crumbling. In places it was close to kitsch, and I wasn’t sure if in other circumstances I would have believed it had much merit, yet there it was in the festival, and for all its wordiness still managed to possess something of the unsaid. Before the screening, the programmer mentioned there would be a Q and A with the filmmakers afterwards but while the directors of the other two shorts were in attendance, Azar wasn’t, with no explanation offered.

4

The following day I saw her once again, over in the basement bar at the delegate’s centre, a few hundred yards from where her film had been screened. It was around four-thirty and I knew the place would start to fill up as there would be free drinks from 530 to 7, and knew if I were to talk to her at all this would be the moment. She was sitting alone reading a book of poetry by John Ashbery, a finished cup of coffee on the table alongside a just ordered whisky. As she put the book down to take a sip of Scotch I walked towards her, saying I had seen her film the previous day and was hoping she would have been there afterwards to talk about it. I oddly couched it as though I had the right to speak so directly to her about the film since she hadn’t dutifully turned up to defend it in person. Now I had appeared in the delegate’s centre and appeared to expect her to justify it while she was minding her own business. She more or less said as much, putting me immediately on the defensive before smiling in a manner that obviously put people at their ease. I suspected it was vital to her personality, this need to make someone feel uncomfortable and assuaged in roughly equal measures and move between appearing confrontational and agreeable according to her whim. She asked me if I wanted to sit down, now that I had accosted her – again the smile. I agreed and thought a lot about that smile afterwards. She would smile completely but briefly: the face would alight with warmth and then promptly cloud over. There are some smiles that never leave the mouth; they never manage to incorporate the eyes, and they can leave the person enigmatic: always keeping an aspect of themselves to themselves. Such people, and I think Robbie is one of them, are usually measured, perhaps even manipulative. Azar instead appeared to be recklessly friendly and hopelessly cautious but in a binary system that meant she was always revealing too much and then guarding herself against the escaped revelation.

I asked her why she hadn’t attended the Q and A session to her film; she said that she was too ashamed, that some days her film felt too personal and she couldn’t defend it, couldn’t expose herself. On other occasions she could, and was there for the first screening at the beginning of the week. I should have gone to that one. Indeed it was because she had done the first Q and A that she didn’t want to turn up for the second. It can leave you raw, she believed, standing in front of eighty people defending not just your work but your very being. I agreed that there seemed to be a lot of being in the film, and then she seemed to switch subjects by asking me what I did. I told her I wrote scripts and she asked how much being there happened to be in my work. Nobody had asked me that question before, and yet I wouldn’t be surprised if one reason why I write scripts, rather than stories, poetry or novels, was that I didn’t need to expose my being in the work at all. I said that being didn’t seem important: structure, dialogue, characterization were what mattered to me. Knowing how to pace the thing over ninety minutes. As she asked me whether I abided by three-act structures, how important I thought the denouement was and so on, I found myself explaining the work in more detail than I might ever have done before, no matter numerous script workshops, courses and lectures I had given or attended.

5

She said she had a meeting in ten minutes but she would like to meet me later if I was available. She would be finished by 8; we could eat together if I liked. It is not often, she added, that she met a man so given to convention that she wanted to know more about what convention happened to be. Maybe we could work together, she proposed; her next project might require a more structured approach. I said that I would still be in the delegate’s centre when her meeting had finished and we could decide where to get dinner.

For the next hour and a half, I mingled with various people at the centre, never quite alone and never quite engaging in the company of others. Speaking to Azar it was as though the room had emptied even as it was filling up. Now I was surrounded by other people and felt oddly solitary. People would ask what I was working on, or I would say a few words to someone I hadn’t seen since last year’s festival, or a person would come over and talk for a few moments before realising my use value was minimal and then found another who might have some money to fund their work. All the time I was half-thinking of Azar, wondering about Robbie’s anecdote, Azar’s film, and the conversation Azar and I had had. I was drawn to her of course, and perhaps because I was seeking an intensity of expression I hadn’t found in anyone for several years, ever since an encounter that I could never fully countenance, and sought in Azar its replication to try and find its meaning.

6

Three years earlier at the film festival, I had met a French journalist who had come to Edinburgh partly out of professional duty (she was writing a festival round-up for a Paris film magazine), and partly because she wanted to scout the city as a possible location for a PhD. If she was going to leave Paris she would only do so for a city that had qualities of its own. Edinburgh she could see had those qualities, but did it have interesting enough people? She offered this to me over free wine that she drank with vigour and distaste, saying that she would never say no to wine on the house but the hosts could have put a bit more into their hospitality. I said her English was very good, and she said I was praising the wrong person: her father was English and taught her well. We saw each other every day during the festival and she stayed for a month in my flat after it as we would go out for long walks and stay in for slow sex, finding in the latter an eventual claustrophobia that demanded the former. I was in love, I insisted, and she reckoned I just thought I was. She knew she wasn’t, though she liked me very much: there was another man in her mind even if he was no longer in her life – and until she could get him out her head any other man would merely have access to her body. I felt like a tenant on a precarious lease even if it was Amelia who was staying in my flat.

Amelia left with me still desiring her body and unable to remove thoughts of her from my mind, and there she was leaving me because there was someone else who had the same effect on her. She refused to talk to me about this man, perhaps out of respect for my feelings but I suspected far more out of respect for his place in her life: that this was someone whom she wouldn’t wish to share with another person even as a recollection. During our time together she would often go silent, and in that silence I would feel the solitude of abandonment.

I had hoped she would eventually forget her ex but instead it seemed she forgot me: I got in contact a couple of times, and she replied on the second occasion creating no wriggle room for a further meeting. I was one of a number of flings she would no doubt have while trying to forget someone of significance. For the following three years I assumed I missed her, but sitting talking to Azar it was the frisson I wished to have again and was now having. Yet I had no sense that Azar was attracted to me, but I felt in the encounter someone who saw me as an important person for her to have met. I offer this with no great sense of self-aggrandizement: Amelia slept in my bed for a month but I didn’t believe many of my thoughts were likely to have sat in her mind. With Azar it was as though my dull stability was foundational: that she saw in it a value that she needed in more than just her work.

Azar said she was in the city for several weeks: she did a flat swap with someone from Edinburgh; the festival only had enough money to pay for her flight. We met probably about six times during the next fortnight, and though we talked about many other things, the purpose of our meetings was to work towards the possibility of a script. She said that she wanted to focus on a character who had sadomasochistic traits she didn’t quite understand and never wanted formally to explore. The character didn’t know whether she wanted to eschew hiring a dominatrix, going to S and M clubs out of a denial over her desires or because she was more interested in the perversity of allowing such predilections to take place in her personal life. As we would talk at no moment did she suggest that this was based on her own existence, and at no stage did I mention the story that Robbie had told me. I didn’t tell her I knew Robbie at all, and started to wonder whether she had involved Robbie in a moment of madness, or had been screen testing him without a camera. I remembered a line from her short film: “it isn’t that there is no difference between life and art; it just gets interesting when we can’t easily define the line.”

7

For some reason I never developed feelings for Azar: the attraction I initially possessed didn’t retreat, but no other feelings advanced either, but what happened instead is that I would no longer think of Amelia with a longing loss: that Azar had eclipsed her without my wishing that Azar would be willing to replace her. As we would meet up and talk about the script that I might write and that I was provisionally making notes for, so I could see in her gestures and intonation a sense of credence towards my person that was never evident in Amelia’s moments with me, even in bed. I suppose one reason why I didn’t become any more infatuated with Azar lay in the moment I had seen her kissing on the stairs, and the anecdote Robbie had told me: this was a woman with a weak sense of boundaries and an impulsive need to generate situations out of nothing. I had flattered myself into believing that what she wanted from me – both professionally and personally – was someone who would allow her to acknowledge constraints.

Indeed one afternoon we met up specifically to talk about her short film and how she might turn into a narrative feature. What would we need to change, she wondered: how could it become dramatic, constrained by narrative necessity rather than preoccupied by confession? I suggested that instead of a straight chronology, we needed a dramatic starting point that would be achronological; instead of symbolic images reflecting personal pain, we should find concrete images that would capture dramatic situations. In her film, Azar discussed halfway through a moment when she realised her family was not happy. Her father came in from work exhausted. Since arriving in New York he had been running a kebab outlet from a van, well aware that was no chance of him finding work as an engineer in the new country. His wife on this particular evening had asked him to help chop up some vegetables. He then turned on her insisting that the last thing he wanted to do was chop up vegetables after a day of working in confined space stripping meat and placing it into a sandwich. She responded by saying did he think she enjoyed washing dishes after working three days a week cleaning other people’s floors, while getting the children to school, occasionally receiving abuse at the school gates (for her head scarf), and making sure that when he got home he had a nice, clean place in which to return? Of course, the conversation took place in Farsi, and Azar halfway through it stopped listening from her room and put on an album by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I suggested we start from this moment, flashback into her childhood in Iran, and then move forward with the story. It would open the film up geographically and personally, I suggested, while her short film was closed down and claustrophobic. Fine for an experimental short, but not for a dramatic feature. Throughout I made clear that this was how to structure a story that would allow for dramatic moments and narrative turning points. It wasn’t the only way to do a film, and perhaps most of the very great films defy most of these rules, I acknowledged, but our purpose was to create a work of craft, an object lesson in screen tension and emotional release. If the film was any good it would transcend its own conventions, and I wouldn’t care at all if in the final script she removed various elements that seemed too contrived or predictable. My purpose I insisted was to do no more than work with her on a film that would obey a number of dramatic principles. We agreed her film would start with family turmoil and end on creative release, with the opening scene replayed in self-reflexive form at the end with her now making the film that we have been in the process of seeing.

8

During that four-hour afternoon chat, I sensed that she probably wouldn’t use very many of the things that I was proposing to her, but that she needed to hear them anyway, as if what she wished for from me was less screen-writing craft than a way of thinking conventionally about something. I broached this with her near the end of our discussion and, once again, the delegate’s centre we were talking in started to fill up as the people arrived for the drinks network. This would have been the Friday early evening – two nights before the closing party. I still hadn’t told her I knew Robbie and of course hadn’t told her what Robbie had told me, nor that I had seen her kiss a stranger on the stairs on the opening night, but I asked her whether she respected the nature of boundaries. She said she suspected she didn’t, seeing them somehow as borders for individuals instead of nations, and there was something she despised about borders, aware that if they had been any stronger her family wouldn’t have had the chance to leave Iran.

Yet over the last few years she has wondered what constraint might be as a creative act: she had made dozens of short films and would hardly show them at all: increasingly she felt the need to work on projects that would demand these constraints, and also wondered if she could find a way of creating constraint in her own life that would somehow be closer to an aesthetic choice rather than a moral one. Perhaps she didn’t quite phrase it like this, maybe I am formulating it here slightly differently for the purposes of condensing a conversation that had a lot of pauses, prompts from me, and reformulations, but I think she would agree with the idea I am now crediting to her. I replied that if she could find a way of adopting some of the script techniques into her life then the most important I suppose would be structure and goal. Find a meaning and shape it according to that need. I said that for me her script was about a young woman who wanted to escape a constrained family environment and find for herself an expressive creative purpose. I said to her that I wouldn’t have suggested the ending that I had proposed to someone else. I might have been imposing shape on the material, but that form came out of the discussions we had been having, and as much over other films as her own, as much about Iranian culture as about her personal life. We had both seen a handful of Iranian films that blurred the line between the factual and the fictional, and where the camera turned itself on the story being told. I didn’t think she needed to copy anyone; just that the questions she was asking about personal ethics and filmmaking aesthetics happened to have been explored in Iran better than in any other national cinema I could think of. Somehow the self-reflexive was a halfway house between the experimentation she had been practising for years and the conventions she was asking me to help her with.

Just before we parted I said that I believed that meaning came out of constraint not convention; out of choices being made not demands being met. As we parted she asked me if I was going to the closing party and made an odd request: could we pretend not to know each other. I agreed, feeling a frisson of complicity in the idea of devoting a whole evening to ignoring someone; knowing that they would be doing the same.

9

With a few other colleagues, I decided to skip the closing film premiere (we had seen it at a delegate’s screening days before) and meet in the pub at seven thirty and go the party around nine. I had texted Robbie earlier but received no reply and assumed he was sleeping off his jet lag. By the time we arrived at the party I had drunk two whiskies and two half pints of a blonde ale, and feeling mildly drunk I decided I would limit myself to a glass of wine every hour or so: any more and I knew I would start to forget my promise to Azar. My sober instinct to say hello to another person became so much more pronounced when drunk, and people I had half-acknowledged as they had half-acknowledged me throughout the festival would become firm friends as we would hug and chat as though we had been doing so throughout the ten-day period. So this time I was careful.

The party was at the art college, a place with an enormous hall for the reception and numerous rooms off it, usually used as gallery or studio spaces. I went for a wander to see if I could find Azar and to see how obviously we might choose to ignore each other, but couldn’t find her anywhere. If she had decided not to come at all I would have seen it as an insult far greater than the slight I would expect to receive, and it wasn’t until an hour later that I indeed did see her: she was with Robbie, looking as though they had arrived together rather than coming across each other at the party. Who contacted who I wondered, and became a little annoyed that Robbie hadn’t replied to my text while aware that the annoyance rested more on him having come with Azar.

They didn’t see me initially and I observed in their body language a story they had presumably left behind for ten days while he went off to the US and which they nevertheless promptly picked up again. Had they been to the premiere together and then gone for a quick meal: somehow it appeared like there had been time spent together between her getting into the taxi at the previous party and coming with Robbie to this one, but how much time: surely far less than she had spent with me?

I went off to the basement toilet and thought for a few minutes about what I should do. Seeking complicity with Azar no longer seemed to make much sense, and how was I going to ignore her and acknowledge Robbie? I was ready to leave, but perhaps it was the screenwriter in me that wanted to find out how the scenario would develop: whether Azar would still ignore me when Robbie would introduce us, and so I went back upstairs, back into the main hall, picked up one glass of wine off a tray that was offered in my direction, and then grabbed another one, drinking them both within about ten minutes. I looked around and couldn’t see Robbie or Azar, and talked for twenty minutes to someone whom in other circumstances I would have been keen to engage: she was an earnest woman in her late twenties who had bought a delegate’s pass, entitling her to press screenings and industry events, and I had seen her looking a little lost at various films and networking evenings. She was wearing an emerald dress that would have worked well at a conservative highland wedding but made her look out of place at this more casually attired closing party where smart signified the sexual. As Susan said she had seen me around and we exchanged names, she asked me which films I had written and I mentioned them all, two of which she had seen. She kindly proposed the scripts were better than the films, and I asked her why she thought this, but was only half-listening, though of course I wanted to know, and in other circumstances, her answer would have interested me. She said the story had a good premise and characters that were well drawn – as though they had pasts that mattered and a future the viewer was interested in. She sensed however that the direction had flattened the characters, kept putting them into predictably tense situations and into action sequences she believed were contrary to the premise and characterisation. It was as though she knew of the production history: the director had indeed changed a number of elements to make it more action-oriented, and though I tried to convince him that this would ruin the nuance of a script that was based more on motivation than action, on build-up over climax, he reversed the emphasis to the detriment I reckoned of the film. It was nice to have someone agreeing with me, and being so perceptive about it in the process.

Yet that evening I was involved in motivation and action of my own, and without even taking the time to swap business cards or exchange mobile numbers, I said I had to talk to someone as I saw leaning against the wall both Robbie and Azar. I hadn’t quite noticed Azar’s attire, but it was all that Susan’s was not: a see-through black lace dress with the arms and lower thighs apparent through the material, but the torso from the breast to just below the top of the thigh covered. It was provocative but not explicit, seductive but hardly trashy. Robbie was wearing the suit he wore at the opening party: he had described it as an investment – a tailor-made, lambs’ wool three-piece that he had bought a couple of years earlier to impress at meetings that he was doing a little better than he had been thus far. It had worked; he was now often talked about as Scotland’s best actor under thirty five; though in the parts I have seen him in I am sure he would have been amongst the best even without the suit.

Not that I was so well-disposed towards him at that moment to offer such a compliment, but as I moved towards them and I saw him wave me over, so Azar started to move away, with Robbie calling after her but she was already out of earshot, or appearing to be so. He apologized for failing to return my text and said that when he got back the woman from the opening night party texted him to say she wanted to go the closing party with him; they could get something to eat beforehand, and so here he was. He smiled bashfully, while at the same time looking around as his expression changed and he said he was a little annoyed by Azar’s behaviour at that moment, as if he had half-forgotten what he had told me about her actions at the opening night party. He said there was a friend he really wanted her to meet (namely me) and she just walked off. We chatted for a few minutes before Robbie said he was getting more irate that she hadn’t returned, and I wondered whether he was irritated for me or for himself as he wandered off looking for her. I felt oddly triumphant, happy that Azar appeared to have stayed true to our arrangement. I left the party shortly afterwards.

10

A week later I got a text from Robbie asking if I wanted to meet up for a drink. I hadn’t heard from Azar at all and hadn’t expected to do so: each meeting we had arranged conversationally; we never swapped contact details. I supposed she was now back in New York.

I left it for Robbie to bring up the subject of Azar as he again apologised for her attitude that evening, saying that the anger he felt at the slight towards me nevertheless resulted in the best sex he had had in a long time. When he found her at the gin bar in one of the other rooms he asked what the hell she was doing ignoring a good friend, and she replied enigmatically that we never quite know who our friends are. They screwed three times that evening, once in the male toilets downstairs, another up a side-street on the way home to his place, and a third time back at the flat. He somehow couldn’t work the anger out of him no matter how often they had sex. Now she was back in New York and he felt relieved, sure that if she had stayed much longer he would have gone half-crazy with desire and with anger all mixed up. It is odd he said, but he didn’t think he could have got so worked up, desired her as much as he did, if she hadn’t slighted me. He added that he really didn’t know what to make of it all, and thought maybe he shouldn’t make a film with her, but that I should write the script about it and he could take the lead. I said it wasn’t really my type of material, though I believed it would have been his type of role, though I think he might have already played it, that he might also have been played. Perhaps Azar knew that she needed to get Robbie riled before he could match her passion, and used me in the process of doing so. Perhaps I was played too, but I feel somehow that if this were so, my role in it remains strangely privileged as I had access to aspects of Azar’s mind while Robbie merely had her body. In time perhaps more will be revealed if Azar draws on this material as she has so often drawn from her life in her previous films. I somehow feel that if it is given narrative shape, rather than confessional force, I will feel subtly aggrandized.

©Tony McKibbin